The plane dips in low over the line of warships as they patrol off the coast of Romania deep inside the Black Sea.
Picked up by the radar of the INS Eilat, the unidentified aircraft sets off alarms that began to shriek inside the Combat Information Center (CIC), the ship's dark and cool war room, warning of the possibility that a kamikaze pilot is on his way to a suicide attack by crashing into one of the ships. Soldiers clamor to one other to take up their positions as Lt.-Col. Ilan Lavi, commander of Israel's largest missile ship, puts on his headphones and begins dishing out orders.
"Man the radar," Lavi calls out to the officer to his right. "Check that the plane is being tracked." While the officer begins punching the keyboard on the console in front of him, a massive computer mainframe in the war room begins to give off steam as it analyzes the different pieces of information it is receiving from various radar systems on the ship. Within seconds, the mainframe has identified the blip on the radar screen as an enemy fighter jet.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the war room, another officer is setting the aircraft's coordinates inside the Barak missile system. The Rafael-developed Barak missile defense system is used to down enemy aircraft and missiles alike. Lavi gives the order and nods to the soldier to his right, who fires off the Barak that seconds later destroys the incoming aircraft.
Looking up from his console in the center of the CIC, Lavi is not met by relieved Israeli sailors but by a group of foreign Navy officers led by Vice Admiral Roberto Cesaretti, Commander of NATO Maritime Forces in the Mediterranean.
This time, the enemy was a self-created computer image of an incoming aircraft, and the context was the "Cooperation Mako" NATO exercise in the Black Sea.
This exercise and others is what kept the sailors of the Sa'ar 5-class Eilat missile ship busy last month, as it participated for the first time in Israeli history in a tactical NATO exercise in the Black Sea. In this case, the airplane was actually an IAF helicopter accompanying the Eilat and was posing as a suicide kamikaze jet in an exercise meant to drill how warships respond to this 9/11-like threat.
The scene is almost surreal, Lavi later admits. He is in the middle of the Black Sea off the coast of Romania and is hosting the commander of NATO maritime forces as well as the Romanian Navy chief on an Israeli missile ship.
But that is exactly what NATO is all about these days: No longer pinned down by political wars involving the former communist bloc, the western military alliance is looking to expand its horizons and get involved where the action is - the Middle East, breeding ground for the most radical of Islamic terrorists.
To do so, NATO is bolstering its ties with Israel in the form of inviting the IDF to participate in exercises like the one in the Black Sea, which The Jerusalem Post accompanied, in an effort to create better "interoperability" between moderate and democratic countries in the region which could one day work together in joint military operations.
In 2004, Israeli defense officials got an interesting call from NATO headquarters in Brussels. The western military alliance, apparently under pressure by the Palestinians, was sending out feelers regarding the possibility of sending peacekeeping forces to the West Bank to try and bring calm to the tense region.
Israel immediately scoffed at the idea, declaring that under no circumstances would it allow international forces to begin patrolling outside terror capitals like Nablus and Jenin, while possibly restricting the IDF's ability to round up terrorists and keep Israeli cities safe, an Israeli official intimately involved in the 2004 talks said.
"The issue came up within NATO," the high-ranking defense official recalled in a conversation with The Post. "But when they heard our response, they decided that they would only raise the issue after reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians."
This story, the official explained, was just one of many which demonstrated NATO's search for a new purpose in a post-communist reality. NATO was established in 1949 in support of the North Atlantic Treaty signed in Washington and created in the face of the threat of an armed attack by the Soviet Union against Western Europe. Its self-declared mission was to fight against the communist bloc in Eastern Europe and keep the West safe. But following the collapse of the iron curtain in 1989, the western military alliance lost its significance and began looking for new functions and, most importantly, relevance.
Then came 9/11, which not only brought terrorism to the forefront of the United States' agenda and put the Middle East on the map, but also gave the 26-member military alliance the reason for existence it was looking for. No longer just appreciated for its vast oil resources, the Middle East had begun to be recognized as the breeding ground for global Islamic terrorism, now the main threat to the world.
The attacks on the World Trade Center sparked an internal transformation within NATO, which began to change its focus from fighting communist countries to fighting "evil terrorists." Since 9/11, other member countries have also come under attack - in England, Turkey and Spain. The remaining countries admit that they know it is only a matter of time before they, too, feel the wrath of Muslim fundamentalism.
In addition, the only time NATO's famous Article 5 was instituted - which calls on NATO countries to mobilize on behalf of a member under attack - was following the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Following this critical turning point, Brussels issued a call to Israel, emphasizing its desire to spread its wings and become involved in the hottest region in the world, the Middle East.
Israel's relationship with NATO began to take its current form in 1994, when it was invited alongside Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Jordan to become a member of the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD), a forum for political consultation and practical cooperation between countries of the Mediterranean area.
In 2004, relations were bolstered during a NATO summit in Istanbul, during which a resolution was passed calling for increased strategic cooperation between NATO and specific Mediterranean countries, including Israel. The new level of cooperation referred to joint activities against terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, a guaranteeing of borders, preparations for mass disasters and participation in NATO maneuvers.
The bolstering of ties, explains Zaki Shalom, a researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies (JCSS) at Tel Aviv University, comes from NATO's new understanding of global dynamics.
"For the foreseeable future, the major threat facing the free world, which NATO is supposed to defend, comes from radical Islam, whose primary sources of power lie mainly in the Middle East," Shalom wrote last year in the Jaffee Center's Strategic Assessment. "In order to neutralize or at least reduce this threat, the growing assessment among NATO member countries is that it is important to increase military cooperation with Israel as well as with other Mediterranean states."
This new level of cooperation is where the invitation to participate in maneuvers in the Black Sea came from. While all Mediterranean Dialogue-member countries were invited, Israel was the only one to actively participate and sent a missile ship to the exercise which drilled terror-combating together with Spain, Greece, Germany, Turkey and Italy.
On an annual basis, NATO offers Israel close to 250 different activities it can participate in, from naval maneuvers in the Black Sea to workshops on munitions control and air traffic management. By participating in such workshops, Israel learns not just from one country but from numerous countries simultaneously, said a high-ranking defense official involved in setting Israeli policy concerning NATO. Israel, the official explained, is hungry for more when it comes to NATO, but budget constraints curtail participation in other exercises and workshops.
"Instead of bilateral relations with one country, through NATO we have multilateral relations with several countries," he explained, giving as an example a recent submarine rescue exercise in which the Navy took part. "The Navy learned from five different countries how to rescue a submarine. Where else can Israel get this type of information?"
Israel's relationship with NATO, a senior Foreign Ministry official explained, was threefold: It began on the diplomatic level, where policy was set regarding the global war on radical Islamic terror, continued on the defense level in joint exercises and ended in the day-to-day consultations on matters of intelligence.
So calling Israel's participation in the exercise a "historic event," the goal of the joint exercise, said Vice Admiral Roberto Cesaretti, commander of NATO Maritime Forces in the Mediterranean, was to create interoperability between various countries united in the war on terror.
"The terrorists can just choose how they want to attack," he said. "It is not a question of if but a question of when countries will be attacked."
"Interoperability" is a word one hears often from NATO commanders. That is, after all, the goal of the alliance - to find a common language all of the member countries can work under and together. That is why NATO views Israel's participation in the exercise so favorably - it turns another country in the Middle East into a potential partner in the war on terror.
In line with that goal, Israel has also recently decided to dispatch a high-ranking navy officer to Naples in the coming months, where he will participate in NATO's anti-terror Operation Active Endeavor. NATO launched the operation after 9/11 and has succeeded in bringing together a number of countries from the Mediterranean to share information concerning naval terror and suspicious ships in the region. Due to its limited resources, Israel will not send a Navy ship to the operation, but the officer dispatched to Naples will serve as a conduit for the transfer of intelligence from Israel to Brussels and back.
In addition, in a move intended to further bolster ties between Israel and NATO, the IDF is putting search-and-rescue forces on standby so they can be immediately dispatched to participate in NATO global operations. The IDF recently formally informed NATO headquarters in Brussels that Home Front Command rescue teams were available if needed to serve as part of the Western military alliance.
According to Defense Ministry officials, Israel might also be willing to send field hospitals to NATO peacekeeping forces stationed around the world. It will not, for the time being, send troops to actively serve in the peacekeeping forces.
"We will eventually take an active role in peacekeeping missions," said the senior defense official involved in Israel-NATO relations. "We will help with humanitarian issues and, in the end, we are interested in better ties with NATO and we will participate."
But despite recent developments, including participation in Cooperation Mako in Romania and other NATO workshops and exercises, relations between Israel and the military alliance have long been characterized by a mixture of disregard and mistrust. One reason Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld points to is that Israel's own armed forces, having started from modest beginnings, became, with time, just as powerful as those of any NATO country except the United States.
"Comparing military hardware and stockpilesâ€¦ Israeli planners did not see much that most NATO countries could do to aid them in the event of another 1973-style emergency," he wrote for NATO Review in 2005.
During the 1950s, Van Creveld wrote, many Israelis believed they were in mortal danger from the Arab world and looking for allies, would have supported Israel's membership in NATO. Van Creveld points to a cartoon published in Ma'ariv at the time which, he writes, illustrates that desire.
"On both sides," Van Creveld concludes, "a fundamental change of heart has yet to take place. Until it does, anything else they do will remain largely symbolic."
But another sour point for Israel when it comes to NATO is its experience with other international peacekeeping forces, including the UN peacekeepers in Lebanon, who again this month proved they were helpless in stopping Hizbullah attacks. According to Van Creveld, Israel would remain firmly opposed to any stationing of NATO troops in the West Bank.
That is not, however, accurate. According to the high-ranking defense official involved in setting Israeli policy concerning NATO, voices are being heard in the Israeli corridors of power about allowing an international organization like the UN or NATO to play a role in peacekeeping opposite the Palestinians, although only after a peace agreement is reached.
"At the moment it won't work, since if the Palestinians fire Kassams at Israel we will need to respond and won't be able to worry about hitting NATO troops," the official said. Following a peace agreement with the Palestinians, however, Israel, the official said, would be more open to the idea of deploying international forces in the West Bank and Gaza.
Another explanation for the recent bolstering of ties, Israeli officials said, was the Iranian nuclear threat, which together with Israel's vast experience in combating global terror has pushed Israel-NATO relations into a new era.
Senior Israeli officials interviewed for this article asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the topic, but all agreed on one issue - NATO was not yet ripe to receive Israel as a member country.
That, however, might be changing.
IN APRIL, writing for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar called on NATO to expand its horizons and to invite Israel to join the military alliance.
"If defending our own values against the radical Islamists is the future of NATO, we must change the way the Alliance is conceived geographically and open its doors to those nations that share our values [and] defend them on the ground," Aznar wrote in the JCPA's Jerusalem Issue Brief. "Thus, NATO should invite Japan, Australia and Israel to become full members."
Aznar even went a step further, claiming that Israel as a NATO member would deter Iran from becoming nuclear.
"If Iran sees and feels that Israel is an integral part of the West, I think our deterrent posture will be strengthened," he wrote. "I believe having a NATO umbrella over Israel will have a beneficial impact. Alternatively, having an Israel that is progressively isolated from NATO will increase the chances that a miscalculation of some sort may happen, and engulf everyone into a conflict of incalculable consequences."
Aznar was not alone in calling for Israeli membership in NATO. Former Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino called on NATO in February to offer Israel membership during a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Sicily. He later downplayed his original statement but said in a press conference with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer that Israel could use NATO to help defend itself from those who questioned its right to exist, like Iran.
"The security of Israel is vital for all of us and in order to stress that point, I made that suggestion," he said. "But of course it's up to the Israelis themselves to decide if they want to apply or not."
Scheffer, who visited Israel for the first time last year, was quick to dismiss the possibility, claiming that Israel's membership was not even on NATO's table. He said that Israel's membership was a "virtual question" at the moment.
Most Israeli officials agree that the issue is not even on the table, claiming that until Israel reaches a final resolution or peace agreement with the Palestinians, the world and especially NATO will not be ripe for Israeli membership in the military alliance.
"The conflict with the Palestinians is holding us back," a senior diplomat involved in NATO relations said. "Until that is solved there is nothing really to talk about."
In addition to the conflict, the official also said that NATO first needed to complete its internal transformation and decide where it wanted to put its focus.
"Membership is just not on the cards in the foreseeable future," he said.
Diplomatically, the official said, Israel had a lot to gain from joining NATO. Membership, he said, would not only enhance Israel's level of deterrence regarding potential enemies like Iran, but would also enhance Israel's political status and make it clear to the Palestinian Authority and Arab countries that Israel is part of a broad international community.
But with Israel currently at war with Lebanon, being a member of NATO could put into question what Israel's ability to respond to Hizbullah attacks would be. On the one hand, NATO's famous Article 5, which states that any attack on a member state will be considered an attack against the entire group of members, could assist Israel in its war with Lebanon and the Palestinians. On the other hand, defense officials claim that membership in NATO would impair Israel's operational independence.
According to a high-ranking IDF officer involved in NATO relations with Israel, the IDF could find itself restrained if it decided to join the military coalition.
"We would just not be able to do everything we might want to do," he said.
Targeted assassinations in the Gaza Strip and a unilateral attack on the Iranian nuclear reactors might not be seen positively by other members of the coalition, and Israel could subsequently be punished or ousted.
Other officials disagree with this line of thinking, claiming that Israel would only have what to gain from joining NATO.
"Theoretically, Israel would be able to maintain operational independence even as a NATO member," a senior Defense Ministry official said. "We need to change the way the thinking is in Israel for people to understand this."
But despite the political questions involved, Israel is moving ahead with NATO towards new frontiers. It has already become the first MD country to submit an International Cooperation Program (ICP) to NATO to build a joint curriculum with additional exercises, military maneuvers and workshops.
"NATO extended its hand to us," the high-ranking IDF officer put it. "And we need to make sure our hand is out there to meet it." n